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House Conservatives Could Tank a Quick Fall Spending Push

Pre-election passage could leave them without bargaining chips in lame-duck immigration fight, they fear

Republicans backing Jim Jordan for speaker may dig in against leadership appropriations strategy. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Republicans backing Jim Jordan for speaker may dig in against leadership appropriations strategy. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republican conservatives are mulling a plan to try to sink passage of a combined spending package for the Pentagon, education, health care and worker assistance programs before the elections.

They fear enactment of the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education measures — the two largest appropriations bills with the highest priority programs for Republicans and Democrats, respectively — would leave conservatives with little leverage in a lame-duck session fight over immigration and border security.

Blocking that two-bill package in the House is also seen as an incentive for President Donald Trump to fight harder to get conservative immigration policy into the stopgap bill that will be necessary to fund federal agencies beyond Sept. 30. That’s because, the thinking goes, if Trump sees a mammoth spending bill building up for after the elections, he may be less willing to sign a continuing resolution enabling that outcome.

Some conservatives are concerned that if Homeland Security funding is extended in a stopgap that runs until sometime in December, their influence over border policy and funding will be eclipsed by a combination of retiring or defeated GOP moderates and Democrats in the lame duck.

“This is the exact scenario that produces outcomes on immigration policy [conservatives] have worked against for a decade,” said a conservative House GOP aide, who spoke under condition he not be identified. “So we would much rather have some version of the fight in September.”

He said the conservative strategy is to “prevent a situation where the fight over wall money or DHS appropriations flips into a lame duck, and that involves in this scenario making sure that other bills don’t pass.”

Best-laid plans

The bubbling up of conservative opposition threatens a GOP leadership effort to get as many as nine appropriations bills signed into law before the end of the fiscal year Sept. 30. Under current leadership plans, Congress would not take up a Homeland Security bill until after the November election to avoid a battle over wall funding and a possible partial government shutdown that GOP leaders worry could hurt Republican re-election prospects.

Instead, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Speaker Paul D. Ryan and President Donald Trump agreed in a White House meeting last week to try to get as many spending bills as possible enacted before the end of the fiscal year but save the wall fight until after the election, a person familiar with the meeting said.

Trump suggested in several tweets this week he was still open to government shutdown over wall funding, including a Tuesday tweet that seemed unfazed by the “political ramifications” of such a move. Later Tuesday, a White House spokesman clarified the president might be open to delaying a shutdown battle until after the election.

Watch: Odds of a Government Shutdown Tick Up as House Leaves for Recess With Unfinished Business

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“He said whether a shutdown happens before or after the elections, his focus is getting the problem fixed,” Hogan Gidley told pool reporters on Air Force One after saying he spoke to the president about that matter. “It’s been a 40-year problem in the making, it’s been dumped on his plate, he wants to fix it.”

A key part of the GOP leadership plan is for the Senate to pass its Defense and Labor-HHS-Education measures as a package before the end of August so the House can take it up in September, people with knowledge of leadership discussions said.

The effort also includes passing an Energy-Water, Military Construction-VA and Legislative Branch package that is currently in House-Senate conference; and an Interior-Environment, Financial Services, Transportation-HUD and Agriculture package under consideration in the Senate.

If all those bills were enacted — which is far from certain — Republicans could trumpet the enactment of defense funding before the next fiscal year begins for the first time in a decade. They also would be in a stronger position to argue that Trump should sign a temporary stopgap bill that will be needed, because they had avoided the need for another omnibus. Trump warned after signing the $1.3 trillion fiscal 2018 spending package that he would not sign another bill like it.

‘Bare majority of the majority’

The contentious Labor-HHS-Education bill has been one of the toughest to reach agreement on in the past in part because of anti-abortion riders that House conservatives have insisted upon and Democrats have rejected.

Two people with knowledge of leadership discussions said Senate GOP leaders are considering a scenario where the Senate would pass and send the Defense and Labor-HHS-Education bill to the House, with the expectation the House would accept it. That approach would face strong opposition from many in the House, making a conference more likely.

In an interview last week, senior House appropriator Mike Simpson of Idaho said he anticipates if the Senate passes such a package, the House will go to conference on it without trying to pass its own Labor-HHS-Education bill. “I think they’ll try to put those two together,” he said. The House passed its $675 billion Defense bill as a standalone measure on a 359-49 vote June 28.

The conservative House aide said some Senate Republicans might attempt to add “pro-life rider language from the House bill to the Senate package to try to force that vote, to get senators on record.”

But he added that “Senate appropriators are being extremely aggressive in trying to tack everything down to get into conference and produce conference report bills that are meant to capture just a bare majority of the majority of the House, and House Democrats.”

The aide said a possible compromise would be to trade support for Defense and Labor-HHS-Education bill passage before the election for a temporary stopgap that would extend funding into 2019, allowing wall funding to be resolved by the new Congress.

One fundamental problem with the conservatives’ push, if it comes to that: a Defense and Labor-HHS-Education combo with enough bipartisan support to get buy-in from Senate Democratic conferees is likely to pull in enough House Democrats to offset the loss of GOP conservatives. That could make their strategy a moot point.

However, it could also cause headaches for the retiring Ryan and his potential successor, House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California by splitting the GOP caucus with a divisive vote right before the elections. That could embolden backers of founding House Freedom Caucus member Jim Jordan of Ohio, who has launched his own campaign to replace Ryan.

What it all boils down to is GOP leaders’ plans to pass fiscal 2019 spending bills through a tidy “regular order” process is, as usual, at risk of being upended.

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